Friday, 28 December 2012

End of the World Dystopian Read - The Age of Miracles

I wanted to like this book. I had heard so many good things about it. The unquestionable Jennifer Byrne had it even listed it in her top 5 reads for 2012. So I was sorely disappointed when I just did not care.

The premise for the story is that the Earth is slowly beginning to stop rotating. And then the book was supposed to look at the consequences that then occurred because of the lengthening of the days. Such as crops being unable to grow, how to make society function to a time, etc.

When it was first announced that this was occurring  the days had already extended by 90 mins. I'm not sure how no one had noticed this yet, unless it had occurred incredibly suddenly. But this book does not let science get in the way of a story.

Explanations? Pfft!
Physics? Not needed!

Let me list the issues:
1. Earth slows down rotating. No one knows why. At least they seem slightly perplexed about this.
2. Gravity changes. While not scientifically inaccurate, no one seems bothered by this, except soccer balls and birds.
3. The Magnetic field buggers up and disperses somewhat. Life carries on and no one cares. Well... we would be stuffed. Dead in fact. We could not go out in the sun full stop. The kids getting a nasty case of sunburn is ridiculous. They would have extreme radiation poisoning closely and quickly followed by death. And it's not just the sun people. Cosmic radiation anyone? But we will conveniently forget all about that. Also, without the magnetic field, the solar wind would strip away the Ozone layer. You know. Just minor inconveniences.
4. The Auroras are everywhere. Lies. You can't have an aurora with no magnetic field. It's the solar wind charging particles in the field! How can you... just... nevermind.
5. Things are better in Mexico at the equator. No. Just no. It would be the opposite, at the Poles things would be better, but as highlighted above, I actually just think you're fucked no matter where on Earth you are.
6. Trying not to spoil here, the book goes for about 9 months when the day goes from 24 hours to about 60 hours. The last couple of pages suggest either something has been fixed, or a reality which could not exist. With nothing mentioned at all. Suspend critical thinking people!

Now do not get me wrong. Science fiction you have to break some rules. Obviously. However, I want you to explain it to me. Even if it is "we have this thing but it means everything works". I can deal with that. But don't break the laws of the universe willy-nilly and don't explain anything. Or don't not understand physics and hope that no one notices. And don't do it repeatedly! To quote Terry Pratchett "the rule in science fiction is you are allowed one impossible thing," If you do more, and do it badly, you look like a knob.

You know what though, I could overlook some if not all of the scientific cluster-fuck that is above if the story or characters were likeable. They weren't. Julia, the girl who is our narrator, isn't too bad. And her love interest Seth too. But I just could not care. It was a young adult novel with a cataclysm involved, but it didn't really matter. It was ridiculous. The world is ending and I'm listening to an 11 - 12 year old worrying about whether a boy likes her or not, or why doesn't she get to go to the popular girls party. Seriously?

It wasn't a good coming of age story, it wasn't a good dystopian apocalypse story. It had a decent idea that was not all that terrible to read, just frustrating. I again feel like it was a young-adult book as she didn't have the knowledge or the story for an adult one. So lets write it half-arsed, and publish it as a young adult book. Gosh that makes me angry.

It also had a self-indulgent section at the back of the book that explained the type the book was written in, which just opened itself up to more criticism, as it wasn't the lively read the type was supposed display. All in all, Jennifer and I will be having words.

Lexx says that if you all want to read a good sci-fi dystopia with well based science in it, we should all go read Anathem. While debriefing to him before posting, he was adamant I gave you all a good book to read.

The Windup Girl - #24

When I started this challenge, I asked on Facebook for recommendations from other countries that people had read. I had Danish and Swedish friends recommending lots of Scandinavian lit, Czech friends providing opinions on a large range of European lit, Sri Lankian friends suggesting relevant selections, language students from all over suggesting other texts, linguist friends recommending everything! But the one that sparked my interest the most was a quiet suggestion to read this book, set in Thailand.

Reading the review there were a few things that sparked my interest. Hugo award winning always a plus. Steampunk huge win. Dystopia also a good sign. But the Thailand thing confused me. Why on earth Thailand? Why would that work? I need to read this!!

So I did, and am so very, very glad my friend Dennis told me too. 

The book is set about 100 years in the future. Everything that is a possibility now has gone wrong. Climate change, rising sea levels, near exhaustion of fossil fuels, genetic engineering and the subsequent control of food sources through corporations. Incredibly close to reality and then taken that step further. A good dystopia for me is one that is completely within the realms of possibility that terrifies you slightly. And makes you reconsider your choices. This book did that for me.

So the Thailand connection is that the Kingdom of Thailand is one of the best placed countries after the Expansion (what we are in now) and then the subsequent Contraction. They also closed and then strictly monitored their borders and limited imports as so to keep plagues and diseases out of the country. So far it worked. There was a lot of tech explanation at the beginning of this book to explain the world, what had happened and how it worked. There is very, very limited fossil fuels for example so explaining how the factories work with genetically engineered elephants (megadonts) winding large spindles, and hand-crank radios back in vogue and such. Be prepared to stick with it, but the book I feel is worth it.

The story otherwise was fascinating. The idea of a Windup Girl and her issues, problems and trials where great. I really liked Emiko herself as well. I emphasised a lot with her. While some of the scenes with her were possibly unnecessary they really made me understand her story's climax. And cheer her on!! Maybe this makes me a horrible, callous person, but as a true Aussie, I love an underdog.

The character of Hock Seng, while he really annoyed me at times as a person, I felt for him and his story as a refugee. He is Malaysian-Chinese, and in this world all ethnic Chinese ended up being driven from Malaysia, as the vast majority of them were ethnically cleansed. "Driven" I mean escaped. The refugees are called Yellow Cards in Thailand and are second class citizens. The story of Malaya and the Green Headbands is not again unimaginable with the rise of extremists of all different types of religions, especially in SE Asia. The interaction between the Malayan Chinese and the Thais I found heartbreaking. The contempt and thinly veiled malice was a little too true to home. The control through labels and cards. I worry as the last two governments in Australia have had such terrible policies on refugees that this is not such a dystopian future for us, it may be tomorrow... That is one of the truly terrifying parts of this book.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed going into Kanya's story and her own back story and where she had ended up. She and Jaidee were a welcome surprise as they aren't mentioned any where I found as main characters, yet they really are. At 500pp though, we needed a few more main characters. These guys provided the story beautifully.

For me, the book ticked all the boxes. Good story. Disconcerting, realistic dystopia. The essence of Thailand with the heat, humidity and mangosteens (yum yum yum). Read it

Monday, 3 December 2012

Anna Karenina - #23

I don't know what to think of this book. It's a conundrum.

It is brilliantly written. Hands down, no arguments at all. It is immersive and, just, well... beautiful. I was sitting on my back steps the other day  in the blazing Canberra spring (spring can be blazing here, trust me). I was leaning up against the brick wall, sitting on the concrete, with a view of the Brindabella mountains and a gin and tonic as it was so warm, with magpies singing and cockatoos squarking around me. But for the first time I could remember in a very long time, I was so sucked into the writing I felt like I was in a dingy Muscovite hotel, in winter in 1870 or so. The only thing that brought me back was a chicken jumping into my lap. I was astounded, once I had recovered from my confusion and slight shock from a big black chook snuggling into me.

Because of this, I wanted to keep on reading. But I wanted to keep on reading something worth reading. Tolstoy reminds me of a brilliant painter, who only paints still life. While the technique and result is breathtaking, you can't help get over the fact they have only painted a bowl of fruit. Over and over again.

Now don't get me wrong, some of the characters Tolstoy creates are fantastic. I shouldn't of loved Oblonsky but I did. I thought he was wonderful. I liked Anna right until the end. Then she went all weird. Even Vronsky I grew to like, although I didn't find him attractive (too many moustaches and bald spots for me).

But the story... You do want to know what happens to Anna and whether she gets everything to work or not  (although Russian novel should indicate that to you at the start). But if I hear one more thing about hunting or farming I think I will scream. I know that Tolstoy had all these great ideas and that this was how gentleman passed them on to the masses if they couldn't write an interesting essay. Whack a story around your philosophy! But sometimes I think he was trying to be too clever (like the 3 pages inside the mind of the dog. Slightly left field...) or too preachy (the entire last part with Levin).

However, his ability to completely convey what is happening inside peoples' minds is pretty remarkable. Anna's ... how to say this non-spoilery... "journey" at the end of the book while perfectly conveys that way of thinking, however a little too well as I just wanted to shake her and yell "Pull yourself together woman!!" I didn't like her at the end of the book. But I think because she was so real and believable and there is a reason I am not a practising psych.

There was much that I missed with this book, which is fair enough really at over 800pp. Watching this episode of the First Tuesday Book Club again after finishing the book highlighted this (sorry I can't find a youtube link to this one). Thank you Richard Flanagan for explaining the doctor in Kitty's bedroom scene in a way my mind never went to. Makes complete sense, that the doctor may have been, umhum... "servicing" her, in 1870 or there abouts, I just never made the leap (the man has read the book too many times, or enough times I guess).

Back to my conundrum. I didn't love the story, so I want to give it a 3. But I loved the writing, so I want to give it a 4. But 3.5, doesn't sit well with me. But it is the diplomatic thing to do. Also, it looks like the movie has cut out Levin and Kitty completely. I was wondering how they were going to make it 2.5 hours long. Anyway, compromising with 3.5 horrible Jude Law moustaches.